Sunday, October 15, 2017

Zero H.P. and Dying

Recently on one of the AD&D Facebook pages someone asked if characters dying at zero hit points was too unforgiving. I had an immediate opinion (of course I always do) and that opinion hasn't changed. I think that the mechanic of dying at zero H.P. is based in the kind of stories that the game was designed to tell. Of course, this mechanic is always one of the quickest to change as rule systems are house ruled or developed. Even the DMG presents optional rules to avoid Zero is Death, and subsequent games have almost universally followed suit. But, if you'll allow me to present my thoughts, I'd like to make a case that the Zero is Death rule is rooted in the kinds of stories we want to tell ourselves.

First, allow me to quote a current media sensation,  the famed George, R.R. Martin. In an interview with Edge magazine, George explains the following on why so many of his main characters die.

"I think a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die," ... "You can’t write about war and violence without having death. If you want to be honest it should affect your main characters. We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras. That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly."

As D&D matured it became increasingly influenced by two media, movies and video games. In both these media the main characters rarely die, and if they do in the case of video games, they simply restart, usually only a little behind where they were before. Yes, I'm aware that D&D largely started the current video game craze, but there was an increasing feedback loop between the two throughout the 90's and 2000's viz, 4e and World of Warcraft. I think we can also refer to the red shirt phenomena on Start Trek to affirm the other fact that Martin is referring to here as well,


Sort of like D&D NPCs? We might as well put red shirts on the all of the supporting cast in any D&D campaign for the rate they die compared to PCs.

Martin goes on in the same interview to say.

"Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time," ... "You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ‘em. I shift off all blame from myself."

Which touches on the next thing that can make a DM reluctant to have a Zero is Death mechanic in their game: guilt. The fact is, we represent every non player force in the world and these forces are what usually spell the end of a PCs life if anything will. And thus by default it must be the DM that killed the PC. This logic, for the religious, makes God responsible for every death in our world--sadly some believe just that. But deeper thinkers have come to the conclusion that if God, or something like God, exists he doesn't control every force in the universe, as much as all things are given free will and the forces of the Universe obey natural law. God may have "created" natural law (or not), but he doesn't control it. DMs are called judges in early D&D for a good reason. They are judging the effects of the laws and mechanics of the game and the situations in which the characters, by free will enter. No, I am not trying to equate DMs with God, only to provide an analogy by which DMs can avoid the guilt they feel when a character dies. There is no need to feel like you killed a character, but that the world in which they play a very dangerous game of "war and violence" has killed them.

So, if we are to assume that characters have free will and that they are engaging in a very dangerous world in which living fire breathing dragons the size of semi-truck & trailers, or larger, fly around the world along with thousands of other evil, deadly beasts roam the lands, then premature death should be a constant in this world. In fact, if you think about the closest analog to the D&D world we have, our world during the medieval age, the picture becomes very clear. In the middle ages, men fought against men constantly. Hence the need for castles, fortified cities and the like. Include death, disease, famine, lack of adequate medical care and the death rate becomes very high indeed. Now, drop in several hundred species, some numbering in the tens of thousands, whose sole desire is not just to conquer but to tear, rend, destroy and kill all in their path. Such critters like goblins, orcs, gnolls, hobgoblins, kobolds, and the like. Add a few serious beasties equivalent to natural disasters, like Dragons, a Tarasque, Basilisks, and Wyverns, and you've got a world hundreds of times more dangerous than our own medieval world. And we know that in our medieval world people died frequently and in great numbers. Doesn't it seem likely that death should be a more clear and present danger in the lives of adventurers than modern games make it?

If we extend this metaphor of fantastic naturalism two other facts quickly jump out. First, magic becomes much more important than even we may assume. Magic is the one force that perhaps can equalize the forces of men against such unnatural darkness in the world. The obvious difference between the forces of good and the forces of evil are, generally speaking, that the evil races are more stupid--humanoid races, or fewer in number--dragons, than humans and demihumans and therefore the good races bring their intelligence and wisdom to bear on these forces in the forms of Clerics and Magic Users. Few are the forces of evil that can generate an evil mage of sufficiently high enough level to truly threaten the civilizations of men long enough to cause them to crumble. The exception are races like the drow, who prefer to stay underground due to inherent limitations, races like the Githyanki, who need physical realms only for raising children and pirating etc.

However, magic being what it is, if unrestrained could rocket our analog middle age into a science fantasy utopia (or at least a highly advanced dystopia--e.g. Eberron) were it not for the ever present pressure of these destructive forces in the world. Certainly kings and emperors could fund the research of advanced guilds and orders of mages to investigate new magical findings that might indeed change the world. And such endeavors, I think, would be a constant occupation in many more established kingdoms. However, the forces of evil constantly tax the resources of the state. From within and without these chaotic dangers of misrule would tax even the most capable of magical societies to simply keep destruction at bay warding boundaries and borderlands, scrying upon their movements and counterspelling whatever attempts these unbalanced, invading forces are executing upon the realms of peace and light.

Thus we can see, our beloved fantasy world stays in a sort of evolutionary stasis, never quite advancing but never quite collapsing. Or better said constantly waning and waxing with the incoming tides of evil and destruction. And, in fact, most fantasy worlds are littered with the ruins of past empires self immolated on the pyre of advancing magic or imploding due to the pressures of encroaching evil. This is good for us who, in game terms, are looking for a fantasy world to play in forever and Peter-Pan like never grow old. But bad, very bad, for those who live there. What I mean is that death would be an ever present constant in such a world, and the danger present there should be reflected in our "play" therein.

Not to forget the divine forces at work in such a world. These divinities take sides in this constant battle, some less so than others given the druthers of the DM. Think for a moment on this: that we play in a world where almost infinitely powerful beings exist and influence the life and destiny on this world on both sides of the battle. There are Gods of the orcs, just as there are Gods of men. Evil Gods, Chaotic Gods, Gods of hearth and home, and Gods of war and strife. Sometimes we in our world, so conditioned by monotheism (whether we are believers or not) forget what true literal polytheism implies. The struggle is real, not just on our fantasy world, but in the realms beyond them acting out the struggle in the Heavens and the Hells just as they are acted out upon our fantasy home world. These forces too, struggle in an endless tug of war for political influence and the fate of not just the world but existence itself. This too, keeps things in a perpetual state of balance, life and death, good and evil, law and chaos.

Now, having said all that and made the argument for the Zero is Death mechanic, I step to the other side. Stories of Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Krishna, Gilgamesh, Thor, Robin Hood, Merlin and King Arthur all require one thing: immortality. Even those heroes that in the end die, die with the legacy and promise of a second coming greater than the first. If these are the types of heroes we wish to play, and the types of stories we wish to tell, then by all means, remove the Zero is Death mechanic. In fact, it is better to remove death as a possibility at all. There may be challenges that seem to threaten death, but in the end the hero carries on. But keep in mind, the one thing that all of these heroes also had in common was an unnatural origin. They were not normal to begin with (with the exception of RH). Their births were the products of the Gods, or at the least of strongly magical origins and their destinies fated from birth. Such heroes were never normal men and thus destined for lives that were beyond the normal.

Does this mean that all characters in a Zero is Death campaign die? No, at least not necessarily in battle. Allow me to paint the picture of Conan the Barbarian. Conan was never a hero, at least not by the strict definition of the term. He was a mighty adventurer indeed, but no "hero". Great though he was, in most D&D representations Conan is around sixth to ninth level. Yep, not 20th or 30th not even 15th (admittedly in CB1 & 2 Conan is portrayed as a 13th level fighter and 7th level thief so he is a bit higher there) , but in general not ungodly in level. And moreover the arc of Conan's life is one of random adventuring where he overcomes regional or local menaces--not world shattering epic threats. And he eventually, around say level 9 or so, establishes himself as King of Aquilonia. Effectively this is the equivalent of a 9th level AD&D fighter establishing a stronghold. He then leaves to eventually face death itself. And with the "Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian", I would like to leave this post. Its stanzas speak of the life Conan led, and the stories I would like to tell in my fantasy world of adventure ...

The Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian


The road was long and the road was hard, 

And the sky was cold and grey: 

The dead white moon was a frozen shard 

In the dim dawn of day: 

But thief and harlot, king and guard 

Warrior, wizard, knave and bard 

Rode with me all the way.



The wind was sharp as a whetted knife 

As it blew from the wet salt seas; 

The storm wind stirred to a ghostly life 

The gaunt black skeletal trees: 

But I drank the foaming wine of life 

Wine of plunder and lust and strife 

Down to the bitter lees.



A boy, from the savage north I came 

To cities of silk and sin. 

With torch and steel, in blood and flame, 

I won what a man may win: 

Aye, gambled and won at the Devil's game 

Splendor and glory and glittering flame 

And mocked at Death's skull-grin.



And there were foemen to fight and slay 

And friends to love and trust: 

And crowns to conquer and toss away 

And lips to taste with lust: 

And songs to keep black nights at bay 

And wine to swill to the break of day 

What matter the end be dust?



I've won my share of your gems and gold 

They crumble into clods: 

I've gorged on the best that life can hold: 

And the Devil take the odds: 

The grave is deep and the night is cold 

The world's a skull-full of stinking mould 

And I laugh at your little gods!



The lean road slunk through a blasted land 

Where the earth was parched and black. 

But we were a merry, jesting band 

Who asked no easier track: 

Rogue and reaver and firebrand 

And life rode laughing at my right hand 

And Death rode at my back.



The road was dusty and harsh and long 

Crom, but a man gets dry! 

I'm old and weary and Death is strong 

But flesh was born to die: 

Hai, Gods! But it was a merry throng 

Rode at my side with jest and song 

Under an empty sky.



I've heard fat, cunning priestlings tell 

How damned souls writhe and moan: 

That paradise they can buy and sell 

For gold and gold alone: 

To the flames with scripture and priest as well 

I'll stride down the scarlet throat of hell 

And dice for the Devil's throne!



I faced life boldly and unafraid 

Should I flinch as Death draws near? 

Life's but a game Death and I have played 

Many a wearisome year: 

Hai! to the gallant friends I made 

Slave and swordsman and lissome maid 

I begrudge no foot of the road I strayed 

The road which endeth HERE!

~ Lin Carter ~

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is D&D 5e Satan's Child?

Everybody has their story from the 80's if the adults in your life were in any way influenced by the rising tide of panic that saw Satan in every shadow and around every corner. For me it started with an informal youth group meeting my church called "firesides". I didn't go to this particular meeting as it so happened, but the fallout was clear when I went to youth group the following Wednesday. All my friends at church who played D&D, even the guys who taught me to play were either selling their stuff or had been forced to burn it by their parents.

Holy moly indeed! I won't go into the deep pain these events caused me or the real harm they did to my faith in the long run--far more than D&D ever did--but I do draw them from your memories as an attempt to paint a picture of the past and how it effects the present of the D&D gaming world.

If you are not familiar with this time, you owe it to yourself to peruse a few artifacts from the period in order to understand what early gamers were up against. First there was the group formed by Patricia Pulling, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (yep, BADD); and their pamphlet that you can read about here. And then there was Jack Chick's circulars Dark Dungeons, which were more entertaining if even more melodramatic. And if you wonder where in the literal hell all this was coming from, check out a few of these videos to catch a flavor of the satanic fear that was rampant at the time: A Police Guide to Occult Crimes & Oprah Show satanic sensationalism. Ludicrous to say the least.

Now, all of this tripe was proven to be false time and again throughout the 80's and 90's including the episode with James Dallas Egbert, the trial of the Memphis three, satanic ritual abuse, as well as allegedly D&D related suicides, murders and other criminal behavior. But, by the time this exonerating press was generally accepted, the damage had already been done. It was, I'll say again, horribly life changing for me. I was a victim in more ways than one. This, however, is not my point here today. The real reason for today's post is a comment made on my last entry by one of my readers Shadowplay. Shadowplay wondered if the shift towards character-driven, story-oriented play may have been in any way influenced by the Satanic Panic as well.

I'll admit, my first instinct was no. I mean we all know that 2e scrubbed off the pointy bits of the game by cutting out demons, devils and other scary stuff in order to placate the moral critics. But the shift to story oriented play? I didn't think so. However,  on second blush I wondered if this actually could be true. Were there forces at work in TSR that could have pushed D&D towards a lighter and fluffier tone in regards to story as well? One had to admit that with all the dangerous parts redacted D&D was not only looking cleaner, it was playing cleaner. It wasn't just more story oriented; the storylines seemed less swordsy & sorcerous and more heroic and chivalrous. I was intrigued, and thought I could do some research.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd find anything. I mean I knew about The Escapist, and their pro gaming research database and articles. I had previously studied actual gaming related social and psychological research on the ERIC database and from several university research libraries I had access to. No, what I was looking for was some kind of internal memo or article or interview or personal memoir of what was going on inside TSR during the times this was happening. I had read interviews from Gary Gygax, watched his appearances and defenses on shows like the 60 minutes' jaundiced tabloid piece. Though helpful for TSR's views, none of that material really gave us a view inside TSR's creative dynamics of the time. Until I came across James Ward's article in Dragon #154 "The Game Wizards: Angry Mothers from Heck (and what we do about them)".

Published in 1990 toward the tail end of most of the vitriol, the article was a slightly safer sell. But here, in this one page policy statement we have much of the smoking gun we are looking for. I would love to reproduce the whole article for those who don't have access, but I should probably not do that. However, I will quote several salient sections.

The article starts with "Avoiding the Angry Mother Syndrome is something that I talk about quite often at TSR, Inc. Simply put, if a topic will anger the normally calm, caring mother of a gamer, we aren't interested in addressing that topic in any of our game products." Clearly drawing a thesis in the sand that TSR is no longer interested in controversial material in gaming. While admitting the game is about sworsdmen and wizards battling evil beasties, they make it clear that the focus of such activities should only be with the most wholesome of motives (can't avoid a grin here). Ward goes on to present the caveat to adventuring that "there are clear differences between fighting for its own sake and fighting for a good cause. The good cause part is largely what role-playing is and should be all about."

You know, for the longest time I could never understand why some old schoolers during the dawn of the OSR would say they lamented the time when you could play any alignment in a game and not only virtuous and heroic types. I mean I had never really had the desire to play evil characters, nor encouraged my players to do so, and I also never really felt that Gary or D&D encouraged it. I also could not see any rule in the later games that explicitly prohibited it or even strongly discouraged it. Where was this OSR critique coming from? Well, it seems that they were mentioning something that had taken over D&D spiritually, not necessarily mechanically as Ward's explanations make clear.

The guidelines in this short little piece are not really mechanical, in fact they don't effect the mechanics much at all. It's true that Ward does mention the removal of demons and devils and points out that it's fine if you want to use these kinds of tropes in your game, but it is not to be construed as official TSR material. In fact the guidelines Ward points out somewhat prosaically are guided by a mother's smile ... "each product should be lots of fun to play and involve high adventure, but each product also has to have certain elements that any gamer's mother in this or any other universe would smile at. These qualities must be present in each gamer's role-playing to foster the right stuff." [emphasis mine]

Those last two phrases are powerful indeed: must be present in each gamer's roleplaying. What we are hearing here is a mandate not just for a certain class of product, but for what the gaming experience and play should be like. 'We don't play dark and gritty,' they seem to be saying, 'we play light-filled and heroic'. While they'll say in one breath it is fine if you want to play with demons and devils (which Ward says that they are still getting at least one complaint a week about); in the ne xt breath they imply the way they want gamers to play is in a very different direction indeed. And the last portion tells how they will achieve that: TSR should provide the content that will foster the "right stuff", i.e. the "right" kind of roleplaying. Wow. It seems like Shadowplay's assumption may have been more correct than I would have ever imagined.

The article goes on to explain that a whole series of guidelines have been set up at TSR to achieve this goal which he proceeds to outline in the remainder of the piece. These are:

Artwork: "The male and female figures shown are heroic and good looking, and would get either G or PG movie ratings." With the explicit caveat that TSR does not deal in "blood and gore."

Violence: TSR should take pains, we are told, to limit "the level of violence that goes on during an adventure." Players should focus on using wit and roleplaying to overcome challenges not muscle hewing blood and bone with sword, stressing that "anyone with any intelligence at all ... finds that hacking and slashing becomes boring very quickly."

Adventures: Clearly the goal in such adventures then should be more in line with "saving the princess" than killing evil foes. "TSR's products have used hundreds of goals of this sort, such as actually saving a princess, curing silver dragons of a terrible disease, and protecting small towns from raiding giants." And moreover the reason for this is that "Those who play in these modules like heroic goals. They like the challenge of doing something tough; they like to receive rewards for helping others out; and they like to feel good about their characters after these PCs accomplish something useful." We are no longer exploring savage and untamed wilderness or deep and treacherous caverns filled with crawling undead for gold and glory. Well, I guess we might be, but it is with the purest of motives and to bring to pass an incredible story of saving the princess or curing the diseased dragon. Story has become the point.

The point of this article, however, is not just information, or even assuaging the raging masses; it is, according to the article itself, "I would like for all readers to be able to point to it as a policy statement of TSR, Inc. This company is interested in presenting material that promotes all of the qualities that parents want their children to have as those children grow up." [emphasis mine]. The reason for such a change being that at TSR, "We care about our products and want as few angry moms as possible."

*Sigh*

Now, please know, I do not fault Mr. Ward or even TSR for this article or the changes they undertook. I may not have liked the changes, but as a gamer who lived through this insane time and was personally affected both in my gaming out, I completely understand. The last thing I want to do is to lob stones, or encourage others to lob stones, in the direction of the TSR, its employees or D&D at this time. To tell you the truth, if they had come out with this approach rather than the defenses waged early on by Gygax (which I also love by the way) it might have saved me some small bit of heartache. And yes, you can lob stones at the cretins who organized, supported and fanned the flames of the satanic panic, as many used nefarious ends, deception and lies to accomplish their goals; but in the end, words, not stones lead to healing and understanding.

What I am interested in now, however, is stating that it is clear that much of the changes instituted with 2e and Classic D&D Mentzer Boxed Sets and Rules Cyclopedia, were driven by the Satanic Panic and TSR's subsequent policies to make the game a lighter, fluffier, character driven, heroic, and story oriented game. For me Shadowplay's hypothesis is fairly well proven with this article publicly presented by TSR in their flagship voice at the dawn of 2e.

I think it is also worth nothing that many early designers such as Gary Gygax himself and Tim Kask had already left the organizations. These same voices had defended D&D for what it was without feeling the need to radically change things (as their witness makes clear in their interviews and statements of the time). This trend also speaks to some of the criticism men like Frank Mentzer have taken from certain grognards who decry their work--but this is perhaps a post for another time, or better yet, perhaps not. My mind currently is filled with thoughts after this new discovery. And as regards 5e ... I will only say, as I stated in my last post, that 5e inherited this post-panic legacy far more than it did the spirit, flavor and tone of early D&D as it left the pens of Gygax and Arneson. To say more at this point would be premature. The realizations, I am sure, will be forthcoming as I process and extend my thoughts in these directions.

Peace, and play on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

D&D 5e and the D&D We Recall

Remember this age? It was a grand time to be a gamer. The Satanic Panic and the days of D&D Yellow Journalism were over and there was more D& product than there ever had been. At least that's how many remember it. Notice the above books, 1e supplements, 2e Core, and a 2.5e Options book. It was a wild and crazy time for gaming, a time in many ways presaging the rise of 3rd edition.

For others of us, it was a time of decline. I owned these books (except for Tome of Magic) but rarely played with them. I was still using what I had grown up with:
Now, I did use other books. The most common ones were:

Because we never had a very defined pantheon in out worlds, but just assumed that in the D&D multiverse all these Gods and Goddesses held sway over some part of any world that existed. It was only later that this view was refined. And who couldn't use new beasties to encounter and overcome. I mean FF is still one of my favorite monster manuals.

But there were others that figured much, much less in my play, the survival guides, Manual of the Planes and Oriental Adventures were seldom referred to. They were mostly novelties, fun to look at, but not really applicable to any games we were playing. The one ninja played in our party used the single class Genin option from Dragon #121 instead of OA, we were just more comfortable with Dragon than OA.

The one we had more of an uncertain love for was the infamous Unearthed Arcana. Really, just a re-written compendium of various Dragon articles and material from other supplements, it introduced two over-powered classes into the game, a weird half class (thief-acrobats), codified rules for specialization, and a boat load of new spells. Yes, we added cantrips on our spell lists, but never found a whole lot of use for them frankly. They were true cantrips, not the cantrips of today, some of which are as powerful as third level spells used to be! I made one Cavalier, that I never ended up playing with. I think a friend of mine played a barbarian a couple of times, but we all thought he was overpowered. And everyone, who could picked up specialization, even though we really felt kind of dirty about it, and DMs kind of hated it. Which led to our love-hate relationship with UA. We just had that innate feel that this was doing something to the game none of us were really comfortable with. The power curve had begun to drift outside of the line of what we considered D&D.

When Second Edition was released in the early 90's, I as still playing 1e, and not even really interested in picking up the new books--not at first anyway. I poo-pooed the books and the changes for some time, even though I had already adopted some of these changes that had been filtering into late 1e splat books and via Dragon magazine. The primary change that was occurring and, I feel, one of the main reasons I at first rejected much of 2e was that there was a shift occurring to character and story centered play. Just look at some of the new covers, even to reprints of the 1e books:

You can see that even by late 1e there is a focus on individual persons, instead of the earlier focus on setting, adventure, and typical old school tropes. And of course 2e followed suit. The player's hadbooks and dungeon masters guides from this era are beautifully done. The artistic quality has improved, even if the content has shifted. We can see that this is a game about heroes and what heroes do, their actions, their stories, their challenges.

 Now, this is not a "bad" thing. After all, of course we knew this was true. Our PCs were trying to be heroes at least, and even if they weren't heroic yet, the stories of the dangers they had faced, the dungeons they had slogged through and survived, the wildlands they had journeyed across in trailblazing fashion to overcome were the stuff of legends. In a very real way this shift in focus simply became what Williams and the Blooms decided to focus on as the selling point and trajectory for future D&D.

The problem, though, was that this was _not_ what D&D had been, nor what it had focused on. Not exclusively at least. The original game had moved warriors and wizards from the wargaming table into the dungeon beneath the castle and the catacombs below. It had dared them to venture into the untamed lands beyond the castle walls and as a result great stories were told. The story was possible because the lands had changed. Setting was the key component that had shifted, and story arose out of the explorers' interactions with this new, dangerous and magical land and its inhabitants. The transition from this approach to a character driven and story focused approach happened gradually, but by 1990 the entire D&D industry shifted to embrace this new angle.

You may find this argument unconvincing, and based on too little evidence, or the narrow band of art alone. But if the covers of the original 3 core AD&D books aren't evidence enough (The party in the lizard-man catacomb of the ruby eyed statue being stolen by two of the party thieves; of the Efreet of the City of Brass being attacked by another party) take a look at a few of these iconic early works from D&D's past:
Bill Willingham's Party facing a Dragon from Moldvay Basic
Dave Trampier's Giant Spider in the 1977 Monster Manual

Dave Sutherland's Paladin in Hell from the 1978 PHB
Can you see the change. Character is there, but the setting and what he or she is not only doing but the impossible odds they are facing is key to the expression that was seen throughout early D&D. The shift in focus from heroic exploits to heroes and explorations to quest driven stories was something that, while present in earlier editions was not the focus for the game. That started in late 1e and boomed onto the scene with second edition.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. 5e has been heralded by many as the return of 1e, or old school D&D. I have always struggled with this because it certainly doesn't feel that way to me. I would assert, first, that this assertion has arisen due to the OSR. It is fairly clear that in the D&D culture specifically and the fantasy tabletop gaming culture generally, D&D changed when TSR was sold to WotC, and Wizards took d20 and wrote what they called the 3rd edition of D&D. Some struggled with this, but the struggle was not much different than had occurred previously as AD&D was released, and then 2e was released. There were always edition naysayers--heck I was one of the 2e naysayers.

But 3rd edition, technically 3.5 was a huge success for WotC and with the addition of the OGL not only had the name of D&D lived, its content was still available and Wizards had brought in all those amateur and aspiring creators to build content for their favorite game. Admittedly d20 was a change from the old mechanical structure, but not a huge one. It made the game easier to understand and more consistent across the rules. People adapted to that fairly easily. And of course 3.5 was created deep within the soil of the 2e character driven ethos. So much so was the character driven model a part of 3.5 that character became king. No longer was setting or even adventure the point--it was being to create, have and play awesome characters from level one and watch them become next to superheroic by the end of their playtime.

Sure settings came and some enjoyed huge success, like Eberron. There were also good adventures during this time, though admittedly, the standard had shifted. Adventures generally needed a cohesive point if not a story outline in which the characters could fit. The point of playing was now how a player's character, who they already loved beyond belief because they had spent hours crafting him to be just the kind of hero they wanted, could have an incredibly awesome story where he could shine, be important and do something awesomely heroic. The point every time you played was to be heroic! Now, I may be overstating the point, but that point is that story drive adventures and characters drove the game.

And, big breath here, that is okay. It is an okay way to play. It is not wrong. And sure, it was a part of the game (in a way) all along. It was just not the point of the game. It had become the point of the game. And I think that those who feel 5e has brought back old school to the D&D world are coming from a place that is much more rooted in this character driven and story-focused realm of the D&D universe.

All of the dislikes about 5e from the last post express, at their heart, a lost time in gaming when gaming was much harder, and felt more adventurous, than it is today. I mean sure, there are still challenges. 5e characters die, and at times these characters face impossible odds. Some 5e DMs still like to throw in save or die poison, require resource allocation, heal more slowly, and make PCs prod along with a ten foot pole when they don't have a thief. Just like there were old school DMs who hated when characters died, crafted brilliant storylines with their players and shepherded characters to godhood and beyond. But, the games were basically making different assumptions. Early D&D, Original Edition, Classic Basic, and early AD&D all played as exploration driven games where adventurers were what you started as, certainly not heroes, and making 5th or 6th level was a feat to be lauded. In 5e, my friends, where fourth level can be achieved by the time most AD&D characters were barely reaching 2nd is simply not the case. And by the time 5e PCs are 10th level, most AD&D characters are just reaching 6th.

5e may have brought you back to the time when old school was becoming a character driven and story focused game. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But it did not bring me back to my game, nor the game as it was originally designed to be.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is 5e Too Easy?

So there was a great discussion today on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons page on Facebook about what people liked and disliked about 5e. It was, by and large a reasoned discussion designed to be supported by logic and evidence. Admittedly it was on an AD&D group, but several people who commented actually are playing 5e currently--so we have a fairly decent cross section of respondents.

I found the discussion interesting for a number of reasons, but before I get into all of those, I wanted to share the comments which I've broken out by like and dislike and rough topic areas. Please note these comments are roughly summarized by me, and may repeat several times. All this means is that the same idea was expressed by more than one poster. So, here they are:

5e Like/Dislike Comments

Reasons People Give for Liking 5e

It's a lot like the old editions

It's Smooth and Playable like 1e & 2e. It has the feel of 2e. 5e has about the same flavor as 1e & 2e. It feels like it has come full circle back to 1e. There are less rules (like 1e). It has the adventurous feel of earlier editions without the “tyranny of the rules”. 5e seems like a return to 1st. I could run the old modules with almost no conversion. It has a sort of old school feel that got me hooked in the first place. I really like that the 3 core rule-books were delivered to publication in the same way as AD&D. It is, at its core, still D&D.

The Magic is Improved

I like the spell slots mechanic The magic is "sort of" Vancian and that feels familiar enough, but low level casters can cast more spells. Spells can be cast at different slots instead of a different spell type. Spell concentration is more exacting and keeps spells from being stacked or getting too powerful. Offensive cantrips solve the one shot wonder problem. Casters can use magic every turn. Spell slots are a useful mechanic.

Advantage/Disadvantage

5e's advantage disadvantage makes the game better. Advantage and disadvantage makes it easy to quickly ratchet up difficulty or easiness of a challenge. Advantage/disadvantage is an elegant mechanic. Advantage and Disadvantage is a great mechanic. Disadvantage/ Advantage is so much easier than bonuses. Advantage/disadvantage is a cool mechanic.

Character Creation

Built in flexibility—I can create any sort of character RAW without house ruling. Class customization without point counting and long term planning is so much of a relief. Archetypes add class diversity (I think he meant backgrounds?). Backgrounds make for much easier character creation than a multiplicity of classes. No arbitrary race and class restrictions. All of the classes are useful in all situations (roleplay, exploration and combat), though some are better than others. Cleric domains are cool. 5e is still new school D&D with lots of recent races and classes included without the mechanical complications of 3.5/4e.

Support/PR

WotC is doing a great job at PR (YouTube, Critical Roll, streamers), it makes the brand really well known and “more cool”. 5e has made D&D cool. Tons of great support. It’s what’s popular and is easy to find players for. There is lots of demand for 5e games right now. 5e is still in print. It is what is in print now. 5e is easy to homebrew (I placed this here because I am assuming the DMsGuild support has helped this). There is lots of support, especially with Adventurer League. It is so easy to get a group together. 5e is readily available and easy entry for newcomers.

Roleplay/Story

5e focuses on character driven play. In 5e story and characterization evolve out of character driven play instead of exploration driven play. 5e allows me to focus on the story more than the rules. 5e has focused on roleplay more than 3.5. The feedback loop between Inspiration and a character's bonds/ideals/flaws/traits is fantastic. WotC shift in focus to story oriented play encourages roleplay.

Simplicity/Flexibility

This new edition is easy to convert from just about any edition. It is the Rosetta stone with easy conversion to any edition. I love that you can twist it to fit your needs and nothing breaks. 5e has simpler combat than 3.5/PF. 5e has streamlined rules and requires minimal referencing in the books. 5e has lots of room for customization. I really like the proficiency mechanic that applies across multiple things. 5e is easy to teach to new players. 5e has very smooth gameplay that encourages people to try out of the box actions. Fast playing! Easiest edition to adjust on the fly for DMs. It has a wider more flexible sweet spot for encounter balance. In 5e it is very easy to poach from other editions without conversion headaches. 5e has fast playing quick combat.

Bounded Accuracy

I love bounded accuracy. I like it that monsters stay threats for longer. Saving throws scale (or don’t) in ways that leave even high level characters with real vulnerability.

Miscellaneous 

It's forgiving. It gives you lots of chances to save your character. This allows people to take risks that might hesitate to take in an AD&D game and gives it a potentially more 'swashbuckling' feel than a slow tactical advance. I like 5e DMG toolbox approach. I like XP awarding. 5e has cool looking maps. It looks like an opportunity (not sure what this means?). It's a fine edition. Well written with great mechanics. It’s good, just easier/different. It’s better than nothing

Reasons People Give for Disliking 5e

Overpowered

Power levels are off the chart. 5e has easier starting to hit probabilities. There's still quite a bit of power creep. The base starting power level is way too high.

Bounded Accuracy

Monsters stay dangerous regardless of PC level, they should become easier to kill has players advance. Bounded accuracy is not a great idea. Bounded accuracy makes the game play inherently different from other editions. The "action economy" makes encounters much less intuitive.

Healing

Easier healing is not a great addition. It is too hard for a PC to actually die. It is too hard to die or face real danger. Core healing rules are way too generous. 5e gives you too many of chances to save your character.

Magic

5e puts more magic in caster’s hands. 5e seems super magic saturated. Spellcasters run around wielding magic like it was just air. Seems inimical to Vancian casting since casters run out of slots, but never out of magic? You can fill up your magic tank and then run low, but never run empty?

Monsters

Nerfing of many 5e monsters has made the game a disappointment. They've lowered dangerous abilities of some monsters. Monster immunities have been reduced to resistances only. Monsters that used to be really dangerous are now much weaker,

5e is too easy

Older games used to have randomness to encounters and less of concern about balancing. 5e is too controlled and balanced. Older games made PCs cautious about traveling to dangerous places, in 5e everywhere seems relatively safe. 5e allows people to take risks that might hesitate to take in an AD&D game and gives it a potentially more 'swashbuckling' feel than a slow tactical advance. 5e doesn’t require players to be in tune with the tactics and strategies of efficient dungeon crawling, but just show up and have a slug fest with whatever is in front of them. It feels like a video game rather than an epic adventure. It’s too forgiving. I miss the AD&D “hard mode”. Older games used to be fun because they were dangerous, 5e is not dangerous. Adventure league stuff is light and fluffy.

Races

No minuses to races is a big dislike. I don’t like monster races as core races. Demi-humans are humans in a different costume.

Adventures

Sub par adventure designers, Tired of having every classic module rewritten, how about some new stuff? Story lines could be more original  and better quality.

Miscellaneous

In 5e, story and characterization evolves out of character driven play instead of exploration driven play. The rules are a bit fuzzy, I never really know how well my PC can do certain things. There's too much uncertainty in the game. It’s not Hackmaster :-). It’s from WoTC.

Summary

While these comments are fascinating for what they are, it is it is obvious that many are subjective and sometimes rhetorical on both sides of the equation. For instance evidently the game feels a lot like the old editions to some while it clearly does not to others. It certainly can't be both, but it can feel that way. A more helpful analysis may point out that 5e obviously does feel like older editions compared to other recent editions (3.5 and 4th), while not as old school as 0e or early AD&D. We don't have the data to say whether or not 5e feels more like older school editions to those who do not like the game. Though there was comment I found hard to categorize wherein one DM said his players felt like it was too much like 3.5 and 4th for them to want to play anymore. For this DM, his players were simply too jaded by any WotC project to give 5e a fair shake.

However, what I wanted to focus on has more to do with the trouble I had in breaking out the dislikes of 5e into categories. As you can see above, I chose the categories Overpowered, Bounded Accuracy, Monsters, Magic, Healing and 5e is Too Easy. At first, I'll admit, I lumped them all into the overpowered section, but that seemed not granular enough so I tried to separate them out into more defined sections. However, the common denominator in all these categories is that they can all be explained as many feeling as if 5e has made it too easy on players. Evidently the feeling behind many of the dislike comments are that WotC has taken away the challenge of the game so much so that people dislike this edition. 

Let's examine each category and I'll explain my thinking. The Overpowered section is fairly self explanatory, but one comment in particular bears special mention. The idea that to hit probabilities have started to high comes down to a proficiency bonus of +2 being awarded at level 1. Effectively this gives all characters a +2 to hit with proficient weapons at first level. At first blush this seems high, and it is. It really stands true across all levels to about 3 for most PCs, and higher for some. What I mean by this is that in AD&D if we take magic user as the baseline ...

AD&D To Hit Matrix
12345
Fighter1010886
Cleric10101088
Thief111111119
Magic User1111111111
AD&D To Hit Bonus
12345
Fighter+1+1+2+2+5
Cleric+1+1+1+3+3
Thief+0+0+0+0+2
Magic User+0+0+0+0+0
5e Proficiency Bonus
12345
Fighter+2+2+2+2+3
Cleric+2+2+2+2+3
Thief+2+2+2+2+3
Magic User+2+2+2+2+3
In other words using the MU as the base to hit armor class 10, and call that a +0 you can see that in AD&D the to hit bonuses are actually very modest at lower levels. What you also notice is that some characters become better at hitting more quickly than others. Contrasting this with the 5e table you see a flattened table that, while it gives everyone more hitting power, there are no differences across classes in base attack bonuses. This is of course what our dislikers were getting at, and if we carried this out we would see that their concern is diminished somewhat as, in AD&D fighters seem to outstrip even 5e's to hit bonuses rather quickly. However, this is a difficult comparison because we are comparing apples and oranges here. 5e used bounded accuracy, meaning it doesn't want everyone to get lots better at hitting at quickly as AD&D did. The entire class philosophy is structured differently in 5e. This concept, in truth, is a post unto itself, but briefly here recall that levels in D&D usually meant the equivalence to normal men. So a 6th level fighter was equivalent to 6 normal men. This was a combination of factors, only part of which was the ability to hit opponents. But in 5e we have scaled that curve to allow the game to be played differently. Not I did not say badly or wrongly, simply differently. 

I am going to come back to Bounded Accuracy, but for now let it suffice to simply say most of the complaints about Bounded Accuracy have to do with the fact that it makes the game "easier" in some ways and that has been generally dissatisfying to some. This conception isn't exactly "true, but I'll return to this at the end. For now, let's move on to healing. 

There was much made of the 5 minute workday during the D&D Next playtest, which basically went like this: characters enter a dungeon, fight their first fight of around five rounds and then have to leave, go back to town or camp and rest and heal in order to come back when refreshed. I was always curious about this, as it was never a problem in AD&D. At least we didn't see it as one. It became a serious problem with 4e because of limited power usage by all classes that needed a long rest to recharge. Yes, in 1e we often had to leave to rest up and recuperate, but we also had to manage resources, and utilize clerics. Yes, MUs and clerics only had a limited number of spells but we didn't cut and run just because the MU has used up her magic missile. In short, we see the complaints about healing being based in 5e being to soft on healing and too generous to players. 

Magic too, is very simply stated as many do not like how much magic is running around in 5e. At-will cantrips, overpowered magic, increased spell slots, they all point towards too much power for beginning casters. These new rules also do something else: they make 5e a much more magic rich game than earlier editions. This in itself is not overpowered, but a difference in flavor of the genre, but that too can be discussed elsewhere.

I was initially confused by the Monsters in 5e. While the goal of boundned accuracy was to make it possible for lower CR monsters to remain a challenge to higher level layers, and for players to be able to challenge a lower number of higher CR monsters, they turned right around and nerfed a lot of the monsters and their special abilities so as to threaten players less. It seemed like a contradiction to me. Very few monsters have deadly poison anymore, nor do they permanently drain levels or abilities. The point here seems to have one purpose to me: to make combat easier on the players, evidently many agree.

And lastly, we come to the real category of the night, 5e is Too Easy. All of these comments hit to the heart of the problem and really encompass all of the above complaints as well. 5e is not adventurous enough, not dangerous enough, not enough of real challenge for the players or their characters. They begin to feel invincible after a while and also begin to default to a rush in and kill it sort of tactic 8 or 9 times out of 10. I've said it before too, 4e was actually more deadly for my players than 5e is. This, in my mind points directly to the concept of bounded accuracy and what some readers have called the action economy of 5e. I've explained it before, but allow me here to simply and strongly reiterate, 5e plays like a different beast than any other version of D&D to date. 

I know many find it's basic simplicity, flexibility and speed of play reminds them of their early days in gaming when we didn't pay attention to a lot of the rules. But the fact is for those of us from a certain era, and style of play 5e is a very different animal indeed and unable to satisfy our desired style of play. It makes different assumptions about the game and about it's players and dungeon masters. I would go into it here, but I am saving it for another post. This post has grown already overly long. However, I can't emphasize strongly enough that though many dislikes are rooted in 5e being too easy or not adventurous enough, that I feel it is rooted in the fact that 5e is, moreso than those in the past, a very different game than some early D&D gamers are used to. More on this to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

AD&D Thoughtful Comments

If you don't know Benoist Poire, you should really check out some of his writings and work. He is probably best known for his work with Ernie Gygax Jr. on The Hobby Shop Dungeon under the G.P. Adventures company name. He has also become quite an AD&D advocate and has shared some very insightful comments about the theory behind AD&D, some of which I wanted to highlight today. The first was in a note he posted about AD&D level limits and how they structure the entire philosophy of the game.

Some of the insights he shared here, I had never thought of before. The idea that levels for instance were indicative of the number of men your character represented, from the old Chainmail days. How did I miss that? I mean, I'm currently going through a little project where I am rewriting the entire corpus o the little brown books and supplements to get a better grasp on the nature of the game. Somehow I totally missed that.

Conan, 6th level i.e. the equivalent of 6 Fighters
Something I was aware of was how Chaos and Law worked and how men differed from the demi-human races. I always knew D&D was always intended to be Human-o-centric because of this difference between Law and Chaos. Although I didn't read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions until last year, it really opened my eyes once I did. It also made me agree when Benoist so confidently says AD&D is not based on LotR. AD&D draws so much more from Vance and Anderson and others in Appendix N than it ever did from LotR.



The thing was, I never really knew this stuff back in the day. Am I biased to say it makes a difference now?

Well, I can say that when I read Benoist's note and other such insights he has offered up say, here




What I realize is that Benoist is capturing something that feels very familiar to me. This is the beauty of writing about games. Sometimes commentators are able to capture something that we didn't even realize ourselves. AD&D is what it is because of its rules and assumptions. And when we play that game those assumptions, mechanics and spirit come out in our play, define it, and give shape to the experience. That is what I'm talking about when I say I prefer this game. Yes its mechanics can be stilted and appear somewhat baroque or even "baroken" :-) but they are not. The mechanics are there to give spirit and feel to the game. AD&D is what it is and you have to appreciate it for what it is.

I play 5e currently, and the fact is, as Scott Anderson pointed out to me a couple of posts ago, 5e confounds me because it presents itself as something it is not. It is a very different game, with a very different feel. You have to accept it on its terms, not another's. The facts also speak clearly now, that 5e will never be what I want it to be. No matter how much Mike Mearls or  I try and AD&D-ify 5e it will never be AD&D. If you want the AD&D feel you have to play AD&D.

And Mr. Poire is doing an awfully good job of explaining what that feel is about and from whence it comes. Thank you sir.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"The Story's the Thing, Wherein We'll Catch the Conscience of" ...


I will admit that I am not the most savvy Facebook user, and don't even have an Instagram account. Recently my daughter tech-shamed me because I didn't know that my IPhone (I still have a 5) had a default flashlight function. I thought I needed a separate app for that. But, I would like it known I do _own_ an IPhone, I keep my computer up to date and protected. I am reasonably tech-wise, though I used to be much more so, I have begun to rely on my 18 year old for some things.

In gaming terms I am a decidedly old school guy in a new school world. I have been drug along with the new wave of gaming design and innovative mechanics all the while lamenting the good old days when we did everything with pencil and graph paper. But, I've come today to talk less about particulars and more about story.

The idea of story in roleplaying is not new or innovative. In fact most of us came to roleplaying for the chance to live out such stories we only read about in fantasy fiction or popular mythologies.  The chance to be the hero in shining armor, or swirling black cape, or with sizzling magical wand and facing the thrill of mortal combat with mighty dragons was what we all wanted. We wanted to be a part of that story. However, the idea that story was king in the game is a relatively new concept.

In old school D&D generally speaking we ran dungeons, sometimes hexcrawls, and dared our players to get through them alive. The few that did, and believe me it was few, grew into legends. Not only in the game world, but in our own minds as we replayed their triumphs and defeats again and again in our post game conversations. I still remember such heroes from my early gaming days. They were all the greater, it seems, in large part because it was so damn hard to survive in those early days. If you earned bragging rights in those days it really meant something!

The interesting thing is, that post Gygaxian gaming began to take a decidedly different turn storywise. If you take a look at product of the 2e period you see a much more story oriented focus in the game and the gaming products. Paradoxically this is, I believe, a result of Gygaxian Naturalism. People in the world have motives, purposes, schemes and plots. They don't always work out like we think, but they do. Combined with the obvious corollary that D&D was designed on the medium of literature, story became an increasingly expected part of the game.

And I do not decry this shift. I mean, one can choose or prefer one style over the other but I do not consider one better or worse than the other. And in fact many of us had already begun shifting in this way if we did any DMing for lengthy time periods. By that I mean running more than a couple of sessions and adventures connected by the same characters. We inevitably began to weave thew story around the PCs actions. Campaigns took on a decidedly epic feel as grand story arcs played out as players interacted with the world and the events therein.

Even if our story focus was no more than stringing together the relationships and happenings into one coherent weave or necklace to be appreciated for the narrative that it was. Our game style may be very un-driven by any story we wished to tell or "saw" happening as we DMed and our players reacted, but nonetheless a sort of organic story developed. Our job became the "seeing" of the story that had happened and beginning to make synchronicites and events occur in harmony with the story to give a greater sense of overall satisfaction.

The danger that arose about this same time was the anathema of the railroaded campaign where players began to feel they had no choice in the narrative at all, but were simply along for the ride while they DM told her own story and the PCs were given nominal choice if any at all. This kind of campaign arose for several reasons, but came about largely from the two play styles that ruled back in the day.

Sandbox play was quite common, especially once hexcrawls and topside adventures were more common. Essentially players had total freedom to spread about and investigate whatever they found interesting or appealing. Some DMs were literally blank slates, giving very little to their players in terms of hooks or hints as to where they might go, placing huge emphasis on the players to drive the action. And other DMS had planned out certain things and, not wanting to be caught unprepared, developed the quantum ogre to satisfy their need for the party to go to what they had planned regardless of what they thought they wanted to do.

The railroad story was very similar, in that the things the DM had prepped for the players revolved around an awesome story they so much wanted their players to participate in. So the railroad becomes plot points and clues and NPC interactions that simply have to occur if the players are to reach the next milestone in the story arc. When players frustrate their DM by not playing along or tugging against the direction of the story tracks, the DM gets frustrated and the railroading becomes stronger and stronger.

Of course, a lot of this can be resolved by the social contract at the start of the game and refined as the group grows in cohesion. The agreement we all sort of make when we sit down is that we are going to play together. We have to work together. But we also have to be at least in the same chapter if not on the same page. What do your players want and what do you want out of the game we are agreeing to play together? A consensus on such things helps avoids a lot of heartache later on. But I'm not telling you anything you don't know.



















Storytelling is something I think later editions of D&D have gotten right. Just comparing the recent Lost Mines of Phandelver to something like the Keep on the Borderlands is a great case in point. I love Keep, and it was certainly sandboxy. However, what was not so clear was how to get the PCs there, keep them there, and get them involved in the rest of the adventures set about the region. Lost Mines, spends as much time on the village and the NPCs there as they do on the mines themselves. That's because what you need for story to unfold is context, meaning and connection. Sure, a story can unfold in Keep, and many did in my early gaming days. And there are, admittedly, little hints about how to weave reason into the campaign. But Mines does a much better job of giving the context for such things to happen. I would even make the same claim for Keep on the Shadowfell, another somewhat sandboxy campaign from 4e that was much easier to weave a story around the Keep on the Borderlands ever thought of doing.

I would even say that these adventures Shadowfell and Mines were part of what allows me to be somewhat okay with the edition I am playing, since the stories flow so easily out of these adventures. Now, maybe my own creativity was lacking. Maybe I was also a very young and inexperienced GM who barely knew how the play the game, let alone make it story-rich--all of which is very true. However, I can't help but think that if I had Mines of Shadowfell back in the day our games would have been that much more fun.

One last parting shot to make my point and out of which this line of thought has grown. My players are just cresting 5th level in our current 5e campaign. I had planned for a long time to run them through the Slaver series, A1 to A4. The current campaign is cooking along rather nicely, and I was planning on having them make a run at the Slavers in Highport soon. However, perusing through the old adventures, I came across 2e's Scourge of the Slave Lords and the presentation of the slightly more challenging series of modules as an overarching campaign was much more of what I was looking for. I have been able to set up the transition from one phase of the campaign to the next with the help of this edition and am looking forward to how the story unfolds.

All of this may make me a more story driven GM than some of my other old school counterparts. Or maybe not, as I've made lots of assumptions--as always. Either way if you have an opinion feel free to weigh in. Where do you land on the story as old school vs story as new school spectrum?

Friday, September 29, 2017

5e and Feeling Confounded

I have played 5e now for the past couple of years. In fact, I have not played any other game but 5e in all that time. I have written about my struggles with this edition and I have written about the things I think it does rather well. What I have not written about is how confused it makes me feel.

Well, confusion is not really the word, it's confounded. That's the word, confounded.

Confound: cause surprise or confusion in (someone), especially by acting against their expectations.

"Acting against expectations." Yep, that would be it, right there. I just can't quite seem to get my head around this game. I think it may be the basic assumptions have changed a bit with 5e when compared with all other editions. I'll be honest, I disliked 4e more than 5e, but I was able to grok 4e better than 5e so far--and I've played 5e for longer. Why is this?

I'd like to point a finger at bounded accuracy, though to be fair I'm not sure that's the real issue. Bounded Accuracy (BA) was one of the basic assumptions that shifted with this edition. It gives the game play of 5e a different feel. Essentially, BA requires a balance related to number of opponents, not level of opponents. But, frankly it's not that simple.

I've read far and wide that the encounter building guidelines are broken for 5e, and have certainly found that to be the case in my experience. In a way this makes me feel better, since even the designers seemed to struggle with the sweet spot. Not to mention that the death save rules, and healing available makes risk even harder to manage. I constantly feel as if I am dancing between extremes. In one session characters seem to cake walk through encounters I thought would be tough, and in others sessions I feel like I'm constantly having to pull punches and adjust encounter builds or else they'll be wiped out.

I know specifics would be more helpful, but as I mentioned last time I'm not the best at record keeping, so giving you an example seems to lack the necessary details to really make an informed assessment. For instance, I'm currently running The Haunt, a brilliant little haunted house number as an add on to the current campaign. In one part there is a Beholder Zombie in a slime infested pool. I've got six characters of just past 5th level. Though the disintegration ray the beholder got off was a close call, the PC made his save. Next the fear ray, and again a save was made. And the beholder didn't get off a third shot. Druid used call lightning, and wizard was using fire based spells and one lightning bolt. ZB had 93 hp to start, the recommended amount in the MM. It was a cake walk and they got a flame tongue as a result.

Second encounter: 1 Cloaker hidden on a coat rack. Took a bit but eventually the cloaker hit the party cleric and within two rounds the cleric was dead.  Admittedly I rolled a 20, double damage, but still ... The Barbarian was paralyzed by fear from the Cloaker's moan, and only the Druid was left. In this scenario the party had become separated by the House, and so they were split in two, the Druid was going to bit the dust too, when the Bard found them. They managed to do enough damage to the cloaker that it chose to flee and hide.

Now, by encounter builder stats, my party should have had an easy time with the beholder zombie, and a hard time with the cloaker--because we were down to 4 PCs since the party got split. This seems about right, since the BZ was down in three rounds, and the cloaker about wiped out three of them. But you see, that's just it.  It doesn't seem right to me. I think the problem is that I am still adjusting from an old school frame of reference. You see, a cloaker was always a dangerous monster. But in 1e it had 6HD. It was nasty even then, but the 5e cloaker--holy snit you do not want to run into one of those. The beholder zombie? Well, they weren't around until 3e, and frankly I had never used them. Looking around the web, several people question if a beholder zombie is even suitable as a CR 5 monster. Let me assure you, it is.

The problem is us old guys are always used to thinking of a beholder as a massively dangerous critter. Well, the beholder zombie is considerably nerfed when compared with the true beholder. It's a problem of perspective. See in this case, the encounter building worked quite well, but I had come to not trust it, and it came back to bite me.

Which brings me to the dawning realization that maybe the encounter building system isn't broken, as much as it is built for a different system, a different game. The more I actually _play_ 5e the more I find there are times when it works amazingly well and seems to fade into the background like a good system should. What usually gets in the way is my preconceptions and prejudices that come from years and years of playing other editions. Which makes me feel confounded. I often step back from a satisfying game and say quietly to myself, "Holy hell, we were just playing 5e, and that went awesome!"

I feel confounded perhaps not because of 5e "not working" or "working differently" but because my experience predisposes me to feel differently. I've also noticed something else. As I transition away from 4e, and the over reliance on minis that game sort of left me with, I use minis less and less for every move, and more just for combat scenarios. And even then only when we need to make strategic decisions. As the party recently fought a ghost that had possessed a party member, there was no need for minis, nor strategic play on the mat, in was largely a psychic battle occurring inside the characters heads and wholly in the theater of the mind. And the effect was to make the encounter much more frightening because they were playing it all out in their head, without the distraction of the mat or the minis to take away from the horror of the moment. Classic moment had all in 5e.

I just came away feeling good about things, and about the game we were playing. This was confounding for me, because I had just felt really frustrated with the edition less than 2 weeks prior. So, yeah. Me and 5e, we are learning about each other. I've played almost every week, sometimes twice a week for two years now, and I continue to grow and develop as a gamer in this the most recent edition of the game. 

If Mike Mearls Can Do It ...

Mike Mearls has introduced, some time ago now, an alternative initiative system that he is using in his campaign. He calls it Greyhawk Initiative, which I find quite telling. The system is gloriously clunky, but like all crunchy systems, once you get the hang of it, it works quite well in play. It sacrifices some things in favor of others, but overall offers a new and more realistic feel to the chaos of combat, and adds levels of strategy that were missing from the 5e default.

But the real reason I mention this is that the rules are so clearly drawn from old school AD&D. In fact, if you take the time to read the rules, he points out you can make the system even more AD&D like by factoring in something similar to weapon speed. I love this!

Clearly Mike is playing with the system to try and give the game a more old school feel, less 0e-sih and much more like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Which is exactly what I've been trying to do for some time now. I mean if Mike Mearls can do certainly I can! Ummm, maybe. I mean Mike is probably one of the more talented game designers in our current age, so he has the chops to make things work. But, despair not! It can be done and is being done. So my hope of being able to make the game more old school in the vein of AD&D may not be folly.

However ... I'm not sure these kinds of changes are what I'm looking for. As has become clear from my last few posts, the kind of re-design that inspired me was more like Low Fantasy Gaming. A redesign that takes its spirit from early 0e gaming and yet uses updated mechanics to appeal to the modern crowd. Not that I like the "appeal to the modern crowd" but most gamers do nowadays.

When I try and cut out class skill increases and the like most players start wondering where all the good bits went. Which is why the design of LFG is so elegant. Because it also enshrines a swords & sorcery ethos that is common to those early days. Unfortunately, I pause for the same reason I do in adopting Mike Mearls rules experiments.

No matter how much I may like them, or think they are cool--they are not the game as written. Something AD&D sort of ingrained in my bones is that when you do have a rule that you find and decide to play by, then the rules should be your guide. You may find that certain houserules, are good, but when you go mucking about in the realm of houserules there are often ramifications to other rules, and you find that living by your group's new rule is more work than simply going by the rule as written in the core books.

I may be weird in this regard--and it certainly goes against much advice to the contrary in early and recent editions of D&D. The DM is the final word, don't let the rules restrict your play, story trumps rules, etc. etc. But I prefer a different approach. I do like rule light play, but if the rule is written it should generally be followed. It represents a sort of default physics of the game world everyone can rely on. Anything not covered in the rules is fair game, though, and if we need to cover some topic not in the rules we are free to do so as we need and see fit.

This is what has made me realize that AD&D may not be my "thing" like I thought it was. What I actually played was a more rules reduced version, more in the spirit of 0e with AD&D content. I never would have admitted this at the time, and to be honest most of the rules we didn't use, surprise, weapon speed, casting times, weapon armor factors, etc. were because we didn't understand them. But you can bet we used. AD&D classes, races, weapon specialization, proficiencies, the Hand and Eye of Vecna, and all the rest.

However, I'm still growing comfortable with actually changing rules or even adopting optional rules into 5e. I've tried it and it didn't work the way I wanted it to. It was easier to just say "it's in the rules."

But then again, if Mike Mearls can do it, maybe I can to ...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My DMing Style


I would love to write a detailed, thorough and insightful article about different DMing styles, but if I have learned anything in 36 years of gaming and the nine years of writing this blog it's that I don't know nearly as much about gaming as I thought I did.

So instead, I am covering what I think my DMing style is. And I have no idea where this is going. The reason is that such a thing as DMing style is hard to quantify at best, and more difficult when you are the subject of your own study. It's kind of like a one person participatory ethnology--essentially an oxymoron. But, here we go.

I came to gaming being DMed by some older guys in my Scout group. I was 12, they were closer to 14. I died. A lot. We played a sort of Original Dungeons & Dragons flavored with AD&D content, and I never DM'ed--I was always a player, and the newbie at that. I call this my proto-DM phase wherein I was primarily being inducted into the hobby and eagerly absorbing all my older proteges had to teach me. Something pivotal about these days was that there was no gentle, friendly shepherding to my introduction to gaming. This was like hazing for nerds. I mean the guys were nice enough, I knew they would never run my underwear up a flagpole or anything, but in the game? It was toughen up or be goblin food. You had to want it and stick with it if you weren;t to wash out of the game. This colored much of my early dungeon mastering when that time came. During these days my DMs included most of the following elements in their games:
  • Focused on DM fiat, what the DM says goes
  • Less focus on story and more on overcoming combat and obstacles
    • The story was the adventure
  • Everything seemed like a weird blend of fantasy, sci-fi and the supernatural
  • PC life was cheap
  • The game was hard
  • Stupidity and bad playing got you killed, quick
Once I recruited some guys in my grade to play with me and assumed the DM reins by default, I was pretty brutal myself. I killed lots of characters. I inducted my friends exactly as I had been. I look back now and am amazed they stuck with it. But then, so did I. I had been raised on a pretty rich diet of fairy tales, classic romance and the tales of Arthur, Merlin, Ogres and Giants, Aladdin and Robin Hood. So I shifted our games towards a fairly medieval style of play early on. That being said, the feel was still pretty gritty and grim at times, simply by dint of the rules. That's the way early editions play. During this time of what I call my DM infancy I used to:
  • Make combat deadly
    • I say "make", but it simply was. We played by the rules of rolling hit points randomly and your PC was dead at zero. Too bad so sad ... Which led to the next point we always,
  • Play the game hard--pull no punches
  • However, we moved away from fiat to an increasing reliance on rules
    • This resulted from all of us innately knowing that just being a hardass for the sake of being a hardass did no one any good. So we backed decisions based on how the rules read. 
  • Fascination with the medieval--we played more like an Arthurian fantasy
  • I did a few short homebrew one shots during this time, but focused on mostly TSR modules.
My group and I began early on to develop a sense of Gygaxian naturalism, as that's what had begun to define D&D during the 80's. We were reading Dragon magazine and starting to build our D&D libraries and followed the tone and suggestions that were coming out of TSR pretty religiously. Sure, we liked the odd twist, and by the end of the 80's I was throwing in quite a bit of weird stuff occasionally and we had expanded our play to include oriental flavors pretty comfortably. We also used Unearthed Arcana stuff, and 2e as it seemed useful. My style during this age of my DM youth developed some, and included:
  • Strong reliance on creativity, improvisation and unscripted story
  • Strong focus on unique challenges, weird monsters, puzzles, traps and conundrums to confound players
  • Hard game play, but I began adjusting encounters some for the sake of story and letting characters off the hook occasionally
  • Even with my softening stance I hewed very closely to not only the rules, but the spirit as my group played the game by what we saw was "reasonable", i.e.
    • No monster PCs
    • No Monty Hall crap allowed
    • No uber high level PCs
    • We used game and content logic to determine if things made sense
  • There was a sense of greater story and campaign arc--it was cool that some characters had lives of their own.
  • Campaign identity became more fluid at the same time it became more concrete. You had to be from somewhere, but the idea of different worlds all connected by the same web of portals or the like was the norm.
    • That being said our sort of default was Greyhawk
  • Most of the material during this time was modified TSR modules, but I did DM my first long term campaign during these days.
The heyday of 2e was a sporadic time for gaming in my life and among my old gaming buddies. I continued to game pretty much up to about 1994 or 5 when I knocked off for awhile. But before this we continued to develop along the same lines softening even further--largely due to Dragon magazine and the growing "craziness" of 2e. If the character's backstories could justify some oddball approach or decision and DMs were satisfied it didn't overpower the game we were generally okay with it. Some changes we were more comfortable with:
  • Monsters as PCs
  • Weird classes and class combinations
  • Stranger magic items
  • Inclusion of variant rules were not openly accepted, but at least considered
  • The game, for us, had begun to become character driven, and we realized each new PC could become something epic--but it was never guaranteed.
I came back to gaming around 2004 or so and caught the last couple of years of 3.5. I also changed my group orientation. I had always gamed with people about my age. As I was know in my 30's and gaming with students at the junior high school where I taught it necessitated a change in approach. I ran the school game club, and though I was teaching people to play my style remained the same in some ways. In quite a few methods I just picked up where I had left off. But my group dynamics shifted and group sizes were large. This required a less "deep" style of play and a return to more adventure focused play. We also played several different games during this age, from 3.5, 2e, C&C, OSRIC, 1e, Pathfinder, 4e, and Labyrinth Lord AEC. This variety of game systems also influenced my play to include more diverse approaches and rules variations. Generally my DM style included:
  • A balance between story oriented and adventure oriented play
    • What I mean by this is I spent a lot of time just running wilderness or dungeon crawls because we simply had so many people playing, I call this adventure oriented
    • However, we did run several strong story oriented campaigns that focused more on roleplay and interaction than just crawls.
  • I kept things fairly flexible and as light as could be--I don't like spending a lot of time rules searching when I've got players waiting at the table. I felt more pressured in this regard largely due to the sheer sizes of my groups.
  • I defaulted a lot to old AD&D pseudo rules I remembered and felt comfortable when I had questions. Frustration often resulted with new systems as I felt like I didn't know the rules well enough and was not following the line as closely. This was unsatisfying to me. 
  • I liked running combat theater of the mind, but began to use minis more and more for my player's benefit--also something I was less than happy about.
  • I found myself adopting some d20 techniques -- attribute checks vs DC and ascending armor class and ability based saves because they were easy--even though I found them unsatisfying.
  • I was not afraid for players to die, but I worried about it when it happened (new for me).
  • I still rarely used fiat, going with explication or the rules in a pinch. Unless of course I was caught with my rulebook down and had to make an on the fly call--here I relied on earlier rules.
  • I like using magic items instead of increasing player powers via class feats & talents.
  • I resisted and disagreed with players who wanted "new" abilities to be able to do things. It began to seem like we never had "enough" rules for some players.
Finally, about five or so years ago I had to cancel the club when I moved into an administrative position and I began looking for a group to play with again. For the past few years I've played with some more normal-sized groups, once a week and my DM style has continued to develop. As the majority of my play concerned long term multi-year gaming with the same group, I have had time to reflect and change my approach to incorporate these views. At this point, where I am currently, my DMing could be described as:
  • Campaign oriented play with an overarching trajectory of story set against strongly plot oriented episodes and adventures. 
  • Still very improvisational and "on the fly" with about an hour or two of preparation per three to four hour session of weekly play.
  • Homebrew more than ever, but honestly still prefer using pre-designed commercial modules which I change and hack to my own devices and as the stories unfold. 
  • More focused on the strange and unusual story elements and game "pieces" that spice up play and keep it unexpected.
  • Much more focus on character development over time.
  • Deaths are rare, and I feel less than comfortable with this.
  • I am still very much driven by what is in the rules, but will call on the fly if needed.
    • I do not like changing rules or even houseruling much. It seems arbitrary to me. I feel like players should be able to rely on what is in the rules. It's up to me to adapt and make it work.
  • I find myself giving too much magic lately. This is a holdover from my love of magic as a key to character identity and power. New versions don't seem to support this as there is still so much increase in class ability over the levels. 
  • Preference of rules light play, I like to keep the pace up
    • That said I love rules and especially well designed ones, I just do not liek them slowing things down.
  • I try to be descriptive, but feel as if I sometimes lack attention getting power
  • Still rely on minis every game--and not comfortable with it
  • I find myself increasingly walking a balance of giving in to players and pushing them just to the brink. 
  • I have tried playing 5e "harder" and more "heroic" and neither work very well. I tend to run at default setting, whatever edition I'm running.
  • I like changing things up, but find myself defaulting more and more to the way things are written.
Which leaves me scratching my head still as to what my "style" is, but if I had to perhaps encapsulate it, I would highlight the following:
  • Less rules for freedom and fast play, but play by those rules written
  • Improvisation and creativity to liven up the game and summon the story out of adventure
My weaknesses as a DM certainly include:
  • Record keeping
  • Guilt ridden angst over being too nice or too mean
  • Guilt and dissatisfaction with cheating dice and bending rules
  • Reading what my players want
  • Sometimes feel like I'm going through the motions and not taking time to savor the action or the story--may result from my concern for pacing
  • I require player feedback and communication before, during after and between games, otherwise I feel like I'm failing